Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Team has lots to look forward to next season

Berkeley, Calif. — As the buzzer sounded to end the MSU women’s basketball team’s season Saturday night, the players hung their heads.

Having craned their necks from the bench and the floor to see if redshirt junior forward Aisha Jefferson or redshirt freshman forward Lykendra Johnson’s last-ditch efforts to win the game would fall, they buried their heads in their hands and uniforms.

For them, it was a tough pill to swallow and not something they’ll likely get over today, tomorrow or even in the weeks to come. That’s to be expected.

But soon they should look up. The sun is shining on next season.

Rarely can a team with the postseason success the Spartans had this year look forward to the next campaign and say there’s no reason not to take it a step further. But that is the case for the Spartans.

They were within a point — a less-than-two-minute stretch — from deservedly advancing to the Elite Eight. Afterward, players and coaches were still hung up on Saturday’s loss and couldn’t muster the thought to so quickly forget about this year’s end and look ahead to next year.

“I’m really disappointed in the outcome,” MSU head coach Suzy Merchant said. “It’s hard for me to do that right now. Certainly you hope it drives kids to be a little bit tougher, work a little bit harder.”

This is a team that grew exponentially as the year went on. Picked to finish third in the preseason Big Ten polls, they took over first place for a short time and earned the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

They overcame point guard problems — losing sophomore Brittney Thomas to an ACL injury and being riddled with leadership and turnover issues — to earn two upset wins in the NCAA Tournament before falling just short of a third.

“We use everything we’ve been through as a learning experience,” Jefferson said. “We improved a lot from the beginning to the end, and we had ups and downs and still believed in ourselves when nobody else did. Not a lot of people thought we would have come this far.”

And there’s much more to come.

They’ll only lose redshirt senior guard Mia Johnson — not to be overlooked, though, as Johnson was the team’s floor and emotional leader and most consistent 3-point shooting threat.

But they’ll regain every other player — the post presence in junior center Allyssa DeHaan, emotional fireball and the heart-and-soul slasher Jefferson, defensive specialist sophomore Cetera Washington and do-just-about-everything Lykendra Johnson.

Lykendra Johnson could be an All-American candidate someday, DeHaan could be one of the most dominant post players in Big Ten history and Jefferson is an All-Big Ten caliber player right now. But they all have to play up to their potential.

The good thing about that for Merchant? All those players did play to their potential in the NCAA Tournament and, with the way their season ended, you can bet they’ll carry those emotions through the offseason and into next year.

“We always have to keep our last game in mind. Just the way we feel right now should a big motivator to push us,” Jefferson said. “One point is big. One point from the Elite Eight is going to hurt, but we’re definitely going to use it as motivation for next year.”

The Spartans return 93 percent of their scoring next year, including their leaders in every statistical category. They’ll also return with some lofty expectations for themselves.

They’ll be back next year with a vengeance. And when they are, nobody should be surprised.

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